Towering, Mardi Grasish costumes, the country's finest steel bands, indefatigable dancing and to-die-for food from the Caribbean archipelago -- what could be more festive? On Memorial Day weekend, Orlando Carnival 2001, presented by the area's West Indian community and arguably Central Florida's most fantastic ethnic event, will fill west-side streets and the Citrus Bowl's Thunder Field with these vivid sights, sounds and tastes.
In its 14th year, the festival falls in the February to October international series kicked off with the incomparable pre-Lent Trinidad Carnival. Groupies often try to hit them all -- from Toronto to Tobago, New York to Miami.
Edgar "Junior" Pouchet, who recently retired from his 28-year tenure as a musician at Disney World, is an award-winning player of the steel drum (or "pan"), an arranger/composer, and the president of the Orlando Caribbean Masqueraders, one of several West Indian organizations that produce bands for the big show.
"In Trinidad, I grew up in an atmosphere of Carnival," says Pouchet. "It's in my blood: that time when everybody forgets everything but happy abandonment. People out displaying, dancing and being merry. For people not from the Caribbean, it's hard to understand the depth of feeling we have for it."
History sheds light on the frenzy. Carnival, which means "farewell to the flesh," came to Trinidad in the late 1700s, carried there by French aristocrats. Similar to Venice's masquerade balls, it was a last fling before the austerity of Lent. However, with the 1833 emancipation of slaves in Trinidad and its neighbor, Tobago, the shindig morphed.
"A lot of ex-slaves began to participate," says Pouchet. "They brought their own music, and they brought caricatures into the festival. It was a great moment -- gaining the freedom to mimic their former owners.
"That's how calypso originated. French nobles would give a ball and have their favorite slave singer make fun of guests by singing insulting commentaries. It was competitive, and it was a jovial thing, rewarded with applause and laughter."
Modern Carnival is complex, and it helps newcomers to the event to know the process and the nomenclature: "Mas" is short for masquerade, and it refers to costuming and music. A mas camp is where volunteers work on costumes, usually in a home or business. A band leader is someone who produces mas for a group. A mas production -- there can be hundreds in a large parade -- begins with a lavish king and queen and is divided into any desired number of sections set apart by color. A large, lead costume signals a new section and is followed by a flock of dancing individuals in identical costumes. Steel bands play in the street, and recorded music booms from trucks.
Anybody who buys a costume can be part of a mas production. To decide which group to join, people attend huge fêtes called band launchings. There, among plates of hot barbecue, cold beer and steel-band rehearsals, band leaders display their prototype section costumes for mas shoppers. The king and queen costumes, kept secreted away until competition time, are usually purchased in private and can cost thousands of dollars.
Today, the West Indian carnival has gone Pan-Caribbean and beyond. Norman Huggins, a Pine Hills cabinetmaker and veteran band leader whose Twilight Woodworking shop is transformed each Carnival season into a magical zoo of 20-feet-high mythical creatures, has made unity-in-diversity his mas theme this year.
In his warehouse, late-night lights fall across whimsical giants of lace and foil and silk. As they move about their work, Huggins and his three helpers slowly wiggle their hips and shoulders to the irrepressible beat of a steel drum CD. The vivid colors are everywhere -- draped across a table, dangling from doors.
"In my band are people not only from all the islands but from Japan, Italy and the Middle East. I'm honoring them with their flags," he says, pointing to the banners festooning his costumes. "My theme is ‘Wave It, By Norman Huggins and the Twilights.'"
Unlike some mas producers who hire designers, Huggins imagines his own ideas, then brings them to life with the help of a few friends and family. His success is legendary, with his breathtaking "Queen of the White Doves" winning last year's first-place $15,000 prize at the huge New York Carnival.
Meanwhile, out in Ocoee, Marcia Headley, mas producer for La Caribe, a service organization, pads through her feather-littered, fabric-glittered garage in bright-red, fuzzy house slippers. Surrounded by elements of her "Dances of the Universe" theme, she fluffs a net skirt, straightens a ribbon and ducks under enormous fake-fur spider legs that dangle from the ceiling. Checking on other seamstresses ensconced at her dining-room table, she surveys the chaos. "People ask me how I could turn my beautiful house into this," she says, with a sweep of her hand. "I tell them because it's my home and this is what I love, this is my soul. Here there is mas-making and food and music and friends. What's better than that?"
At a work table, a volunteer puts away a bottle of glue as her husband, in an adjacent chair, fights sleep. "Well, it's about that time," she says.; ;
"Ha," Headley responds. "I'm 53, and I'm still at it."; ;
Watching the couple leave, Headley muses, "Preparing mas, my head is obsessed, my hands are possessed. When it comes to Carnival, I can not see reason."
She is quite clear-minded, though, in her dedication to education. As a teacher, and working through La Caribe, she is introducing Carnival history and Caribbean culture to school children and has sponsored programs in area colleges. "A community needs to know about and understand and respect all its cultures," she explains.
Deeply symbolic of the Caribbean culture and Carnival are steel drums. The only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century, they originated in Trinidad, evolving from biscuit tins to small grease cans and finally in 1946 to a 50-gallon drum.
Surprisingly, not only does Central Florida have steel bands in some schools, but it has award-winning ones. Space Coast Middle School recently took top honors at the All-American Music Festival at Universal Studios. Eustis Middle School, Sterling Park Elementary in Casselberry, Lakeview Middle School in Winter Garden and Orlando's Kaley Elementary and Colonial High School all have impressive steel bands. Tom Reynolds, owner of nationally regarded Tropical Hammer Steel Drum Crafters, is the man who provides their drums.
"I can't make them fast enough, the kids love them so," says Reynolds, who sells them to schools and professionals across the country and is also a tuner. He moved to the States in 1961 from St. Croix, where Carnival happens at Christmas. "The steel bands would come up from St. Kitts, drums hanging around their necks," he remembers. "I loved the sound." He went on to establish one of the first steel-drum ensembles in the Virgin Islands and now performs with his family at Disney World and Central Florida conventions.
"The past five years have been boom years," says Reynolds. "Americans really appreciate steel drums, because of the rhythms and because it reminds them of good times in the tropics."
So, with all the history, the wondrous artistry and world-class pan men, with all the good-spirited fun and with an estimated 32,000 well-behaved attenders last year -- not a single "incident" -- why is this festival so little-known locally, outside the West Indian community?
The answer is at once simple and complicated and, perhaps, uncomfortable. The simple part of the answer is a lack of organizational expertise, including how to market, to raise and manage funds, to garner bureaucratic backing and to control overhead costs. The complicated issues involve artistic temperaments, egos and a leisure mindset that tends to make timeliness a low priority.
The financial woes that have beset this event stem not from anyone pocketing monies but from nobody knowing how to raise funds and control costs against a comparatively meager purse. This problem led to a break-off last year by some band leaders who grumbled that in the previous year prize money was late or not forthcoming. An expected kiss-and-make-up did not happen, which led to two carnivals on the same weekend. Although it did not faze the crowds, it did sour some sponsors who withdrew support this year and had to be wooed back.
Carnival is very expensive, with high fees to the city for police, clean-up and rental fees for facilities, to mention a few costs. However, band leaders and other debt holders have now been paid. Some venues and personal loans have also been paid, while others are accepting installment payments. A few debts have been forgiven, and this year a new plan assures that band leaders are taken care of.
"We have already set aside money for them that can not be touched for other purposes -- plus a portion of the gate, as it is collected," says Julia O'Connor, a Sun Trust trading officer who is president of the Orlando Carnival Association.; ;
"Last year's problem was not intentional," says Pouchet, the retired Disney musician, who headed the splinter group, "but it was trouble for us. Financially, it's always been a catch-up festival. It's just that we have such ambition for the parade and hoped it would be nonprofit, but there were never, ever major sponsors. We just could not raise them to help us. Those we did have were mostly in-kind donations, and even they stepped back. United again, we're trying to get that confidence back."; ;
They also want to get the message across to city government that Carnival has economic impact. Estimates for all revenue generated by the event over the weekend, including hotels, restaurants, car rentals, theme parks and so forth, was slightly over $7 million.; ;
Too, there have been unfortunate fears. "One policeman said to us, ‘Why would a bunch of black people want to get out and jump around in the hot sun?'" says Carnival Association president O'Connor. "I said, ‘Excuse me, this is our culture; we are celebrating our liberation!'"
Some speculate that perhaps the level of Carnival's uninhibited gaiety exceeds the city's comfort zone. O'Connor is disappointed that she didn't receive a reply to a letter to Mayor Glenda Hood that invited Hood to be grand marshall of the parade. After an inquiry to the mayor's office, O'Connor was called by a Hood spokesperson and told that the letter was never received. Oddly, the mayor's office fulfilled a request for a proclamation that was included in the same correspondence.
For Central Floridians, though, the only important issue is this: On Memorial Day weekend, a united Carnival will present, for your drop-jawed pleasure, two days of gorgeous, good-will fun. A fry-bake breakfast awaits at the Spicy Hot Restaurant in the Magic Mall on Pine Hills Road. Then on to Thunder Field at noon for the children's Carnival, including a parade of junior bands, in full mas regalia, and a talent show. For adults, there's an Old Man contest, calypso competitions, Haitian bands, a steel-band jamboree and judging of the adult king and queen costumes. Food and drink aplenty. Citrus Bowl parking is free.
Sunday, the adult parade begins at noon, at Division Street and Washington Avenue, and winds its way to Thunder Field, where it takes on the format of a concert. Mas productions will perform on stage. There will be arts, crafts and food.
"We just so much want for Mr. and Ms. Orlando to come be a part of our party," enthuses Pouchet, "move to our music, see our colors, know the peace and play of Carnival."